HMCS Protecteur crew fought engine fire for 11 hours

CBC News has learned Canadian sailors aboard fire-stricken HMCS Protecteur last month battled the blaze that disabled their ship for more than 11 hours before they were able to put it out.

Commander Julian Elbourne, captain of Protecteur, speaks exclusively with CBC News

Royal Canadian Naval Commander Julian Elbourne, Commander of the HMCS Protecteur, was on board the ship when it experienced an engine fire at sea. The fire disabled the ship requiring it to be towed into a U.S. naval base in Hawaii for repairs. (The Associated Press)

CBC News has learned Canadian sailors aboard fire-stricken HMCS Protecteur last month battled the blaze that disabled their ship for more than 11 hours before they were able to put it out.

The life or death fight was made even more difficult after the unexplained failure of the supply ship's back-up generator, leaving Protecteur dead in the water, in the dark of night, her 279-strong crew struggling through smoke and blackness to fight the fire.

The generator failure also left crews scrambling to find a way to power water pumps to fight the blaze, and refill the air tanks fire teams needed to sustain them as they tried desperately to save their ship.

This new information comes as Commander Julian Elbourne, captain of Protecteur, prepares to welcome naval investigators to the ship, which is tied up in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in the coming days.

In an exclusive interview, Elbourne told CBC News, Protecteur also suffered a second smaller fire just three days after the first, also in the engine room.

Elbourne says that second fire was caused by fire-damaged electrical cables as the crew worked to restore power to the navy supply ship through that broken generator.

“Some of the cabling within the engine room had melted and become compromised and when we flashed that generator, electricity going through some of that wire caused us to have a minor fire in the engine room that was dealt with immediately,” Elbourne said.

2 fires in 3 days

But that fire was a nuisance, compared to the conflagration that disabled the ship when it broke out at about 7:17 p.m. on February 27.

Elbourne said he was on Protecteur’s bridge at the time.

In my assessment that is the worst case possibility for a location of a fire on a ship.- Commander Julian Elbourne, captain of HMCS Protecteur

The vessel was more than a day — and 600 kilometres — out of Pearl Harbour in the north Pacific in rough seas.

The fire allegedly started with some kind of burst of flame or fireball in the main engineering compartment – a gymnasium sized room in the aft half of the ship, with ceilings three stories high.

“In my assessment that is the worst case possibility for a location of a fire on a ship,” Elbourne said in a call from Hawaii.

Protecteur burns fuel to heat steam that turns a turbine for ship power and propulsion. That equipment occupies the massive main engineering space where the fire started.

Within four hours, Elbourne says, his fire teams had contained the blaze in the engineering area but it took another seven or eight hours to “overhaul” the ship and extinguish all smouldering remnants.

“I put a total of 17 attacks teams into that fire over an 11-hour period, so quite significant,” Elbourne said. “Twice during those 11 hours, we had a re-flash, and that’s pretty common with any fire.”

Back-up generator failed

It would be a challenging enough effort tied up alongside in port with shore power and lights to illuminate the work. But Elbourne and his crew did not have that luck.

“It’s dark. It’s night time now. The seas were probably about three to four metre seas. The ship was completely black and I had no electricity on board,” Elbourne said, because the back-up generator failed.

With no power, Protecteur and her crew were left with a single diesel-powered water pump with which to do battle.

HMCS Protecteur, seen here entering Pearl Harbor following an engine fire, was so badly damaged it may never be repaired. (CBC)

“It was an enormous fire. There was smoke throughout, certainly all the after house and the upper decks, there was black smoke so we knew it was a big fire,” Elbourne said.

“We had no indication how long that diesel fire pump would last — how long I would have water to fight the fire, so, we were fighting some pretty big battles.”

The lack of electricity did not just mean no lights. It meant the ship was reduced to using back up, battery-powered communications equipment. It had no ship board loud hailers or Tannoy system and no power to run the two air compressors vital to the firefighting effort.

Each member of the fire crews each wore a self-contained breathing apparatus that require large air bottles to function.

With no power, the two air compressors used to charge those bottles could not operate.

A solution was found in the ship’s stores. Protecteur had been provisioned with a load of humanitarian disaster relief gear, including several gasoline generators, which were found in the cargo hold and pressed into service.

“Our personnel were going through those bottles very quickly and we were having a hard time keeping up with filling those bottles,” Elbourne said.

“I’m 24 years in the navy and it’s certainly the most harrowing experience that I have ever been in.”

Ship may not be repaired

Elbourne is Protecteur’s 31st captain. It’s a number he arrived at by counting the framed pictures of his predecessors hanging on the wall outside his shipboard office.  The first of those portraits are in black and white – a reminder that Protecteur was launched 46 years ago, before her present captain was even born.

The ship was due to be taken out of service by 2017, but it now seems more likely she will just never be repaired.

It’s certainly the most harrowing experience that I have ever been in.- Commander Julian Elbourne, captain of HMCS Protecteur

It’s a prospect Elbourne is not interested in discussing: “I am the ship driver not the engineer,” he said.

What seems clear even at this early stage is that the damage is massive.

Protecteur is to be towed home to Esquimalt next month to be assessed but already the navy is cancelling future deployments, including a multi-national exercise this summer.

“The business we’re in is the navy, is an inherently dangerous business. Working on the sea, working on ships is dangerous, it has risk, and the fact is, that night, we faced that risk, and it was enormous risk,” Elbourne said.

“I saw a bunch of Canadian sailors, do what they are supposed to do, and do it very well, in perhaps the most dire circumstances that you could see at sea.”